“You like Star Trek?” My friend looked at me with an expression of suspicion mingled with a hefty dose of judgment.
“Well,” I stammered, “I’m not… a Trekkie. I’m not dressing up in a costume and going to some convention!” I laughed nervously at the absurd thought and moved the conversation on to safer, less geeky, ground as quickly as I could. Of course I wasn’t that big of a fan. Conventions were for ultra-geeks. Why would I ever go to one?
Friendship may be born in that second when you realize someone else loves the same thing you do or has been through a similar situation. But it is also true that those little friendships are just that, small and fragile. The quest is what transforms those happy meetings into lifelong connections.Why indeed, I thought, years later, as I pulled on my costume boots, arranged my accessories just so, checked my styled hair, and walked into my first comic con. I didn’t go as a character from Star Trek, but I did dress up as a character from one of my favorite computer games. I have to say, going to that con was one of the most fun and impactful things I have ever done in my entire life.
Comic book conventions, commonly referred to as comic cons or simply cons, are a massively growing industry. Whereas once they were events primarily dedicated to the love of comic books, they are now multi-million dollar, multi-day homages1 to all things pop culture. Late this past July, thousands of people descended on Southern California for the granddaddy of all conventions: San Diego Comic-Con. Crowds of people, many in costumes, lined the streets, filled hotels, and braved the dreaded con-crud to take part in this massive convention. Cons are exciting. They are crowded, busy, bustling masses of people and costumes and art. And they have become the height of the geek experience.
The largest cons feature a constant schedule of interviews and panels with well-known actors, voice-actors, writers, and artists. Attendees can spend hours waiting in lines to hear about behind-the-scenes life on their favorite sci-fi show, have their questions answered regarding the stories and plots they love, and get updates on soon-to-be-released games and movies.
There’s also Artist Alley, where creators of all types set up shop to sell their art; everything from books, comics, fan art, personalized portraits, and even clothes are sold on con floors. You’ll find a large selection of dealers selling all sorts of geeky collectables. And of course, there’s the cosplay, a rapidly growing hobby that is essentially fan-based costuming. Cons feature cosplay meet ups, contests, photo ops, and just the opportunity to show off what you’ve worked so hard to create.
What all these features of comic cons share is the idea of community. Over the past few years, the acceptance of genres once considered too geeky for mainstream attention has grown, and science fiction and fantasy are now seeing a heyday. The mainstream popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is spearheading much of it, as is the nostalgia of adults longing to re-experience their childhood love of imaginative stories and games. It is easier than ever for people to connect with others who love the same things as them, even the ultra geeky things.
People long to gather together with others who share similar passions, and cons have become a great place to do that. C. S. Lewis famously said, “Friendship… is born at that moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” For a long time, I assumed this was the heart of why so many people were going to cons. We want to meet and connect with more people like us, especially us geeks who can be a little harder to find. I know I did.
The more I think about it, however, the more I am convinced that the need for connection cannot be all that’s driving the comic con attraction. Wanting to meet people who share similar interests is certainly part of why people go, but it doesn’t explain the passion that cons tend to stir up and the sheer number of people attending. Wanting to connect was my reason to attend that first time, but it cannot explain why I want to go back as much as I do. In fact, the more I think about it, the more a different thought from Lewis’s The Four Loves rings true:
The common quest or vision which unites Friends does not absorb them in such a way that they remain ignorant or oblivious of one another. On the contrary, it is the very medium in which their mutual love and knowledge exist.… You will never find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him.
We stare into the eyes of the person we love, but we forge friendships by moving through experiences. Lewis called it the “quest,” a common goal that unites people. Friendship may be born in that second when you realize someone else loves the same thing you do or has been through a similar situation. But it is also true that those little friendships are just that, small and fragile. The quest is what transforms those happy meetings into lifelong connections. The quest, the common goal, the obstacle to overcome allows people to really discover each other. And no word fits a con better.
For people who exist on a steady diet of fantasy, role playing games, science fiction, and superheroes, practically anything can become a quest. No glowing yellow question mark is needed; we know how to turn almost any moment into something to be experienced. For the imaginative — and geek culture is deeply rooted in imagination — every aspect of the con is an adventure waiting to happen. Everything from finding a parking space in the overcrowded lot, to waiting in lines that literally span city blocks, to finally finding a seat in the panel you’ve been hoping to make it into for weeks becomes a note in a quest log.
Everything that happens in a con is an experience, and each of those experiences constitutes the quest as a whole. Cons, then, become something to be completed with achievements to unlock along the way. Each element of a con is an opportunity to form a party and set out together. The very goal of reaching the end intact is part of what draws people in and binds them together.
When a person attends a comic con, the moment Lewis wrote about, the “What! You too?” moment is already a given. You walk in assuming that every other person there loves things that you love. Oh sure, they won’t all be into the same fandoms you are, but the very fact that they are standing next to you in line means that you and they share very similar interests. The need for that moment of connection has already been met which means it’s on to the quest. Will we make it past security any time soon? Can we navigate the many hallways to find the right room? There is a bond that exists in cons that I have rarely seen elsewhere. Not that everyone is kind, I’m not trying to paint a false picture, but there is a deep sense of “let’s do this together” that is hard to articulate. Strangers, even the most reserved of introverts, talk for hours at cons (mostly while waiting in lines). They share tips, talk about their lives, and recount the tales of how they arrived to that place and that moment in time. They help each other out, fixing costumes, creating paths, holding places in line while bathroom runs are made. The sense of adventure is almost palpable and the desire to conquer the con is real.
A few years ago I started hearing people talking about “doing life” together. It’s that idea of living in community. It’s a phrase that, despite it’s buzzword status, I liked. I liked the idea of doing life because I long for that sort of friendship, the sort that doesn’t balk at dirty dishes, busy schedules, messes, and chaos. But let’s be honest, that’s hard to find. It’s easy to do Bible study and Sunday mornings; it’s much harder to let someone into your sleepless nights and streaked mascara. I’ve learned since that first con that it’s the quest that makes the difference.
So often, I have found “you too” moments only to have those friendships fizzle out shortly thereafter. I’ve sought connection and then been disappointed when that link doesn’t develop into the meaningful relationships I crave. I’m learning to look for the quest instead. It’s found in the quiet moments, the struggling through the hard times, the rejoicing in the good; that is what transforms the happy connections into meaningful communities. I need the type of friendships that Lewis talks about and I need to be reminded that it’s the quest that creates them.
Cons showed me that doing life doesn’t just mean occasional cups of coffee. It’s the millions of little moments all strung together. They taught me that you don’t have to have a perfect “You too?” moment or love all the same things to sit with someone to listen to their stories or to save their place in line when they need a break. Cons showed me that loving people is about more than getting along; it’s about traveling together side by side. It’s about experiencing things, even the boring and the mundane. Just like cons, doing life isn’t about the highlight reels; it’s about the quest.
1 Eventbrite, an online ticketing agency, estimates that in 2013 over $600 million was spent in tickets alone with the number only rising.